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May 20, 2010

Shakespeare blended with Husky themes: It’s ‘A U-Dubber Night’s Dream’

Shakespeare’s magic is transplanted to the UW campus in A U-Dubber Night’s Dream, opening May 26 in the Jones Playhouse, with previews May 23 and 25. It’s a production that has been three and a half years in the making, and although it is under the auspices of the School of Drama, many people across campus have been involved.

As the title implies, the show is a takeoff of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, set at the UW and featuring a cast of 22, only about half of whom are drama students. The rest have been recruited from the ranks of five particular groups: athletes, ROTC members, first-generation students, young scholars (early entrance students) and returning students. Oh yes, and Ed Taylor, vice provost for undergraduate academic affairs, is playing a role, but more about that later.

The whole thing is the brainchild of Geoff Korf, associate professor of drama, who brought the idea to the UW from the Los Angeles-based Cornerstone Theater Company and is directing the current production. Korf has been a member of that theater’s ensemble for nearly 15 years, and immediately thought of mounting a Cornerstone-style production when he arrived at the UW in 2002. Cornerstone, Korf explained, is community-based theater, meaning the productions they do spring from particular communities. So, rather than rehearsing a production of a play and taking it to, say, the Watts neighborhood, the company meets with people in that neighborhood to learn about their lives. They then craft a production — either adapting an existing play or writing a new one — that they perform, using people from the neighborhood in the cast.

It wasn’t until the fall of 2006, when the School of Drama was beginning its renovation plans for what was to become the Jones Playhouse that Korf was able to plant the idea of a Cornerstone type production here.

“At that time, [School of Drama Director] Sarah Nash Gates asked the faculty to brainstorm about the playhouse,” Korf said. “And I said we could do a community-based theater piece about our campus and perform it, and the idea took hold.”

A planning committee was formed with faculty members and students. They dubbed it the Campus-wide Collaborative Theater Project. Then they invited Cornerstone Theater members to come and do an intensive two-day training for interested students.

That’s when Michelle Burce, then a student with a double major in drama and community, environment, and planning, got involved. “I have always loved doing theater, but I also have a strong desire to be involved in community-building projects of all kinds,” she said. “Getting involved in this project seemed like the perfect way to blend these two interests.”

After the training, the first step was to conduct what Cornerstone calls story circles, which involves gathering people who represent particular groups and asking a series of questions.

“We tried to get at issues of stereotyping and how people felt their communities were misrepresented,” Korf said. “We asked them to tell us the best things about their community. One of my favorite questions the committee came up with was, ‘If you were to make your own university, what would be your ‘MeDub’?'”

It was difficult to narrow the field down to a few groups to be represented in the play, Korf said. And then the group struggled with what play to do. For a long time they worked with a 16th century play in which an “audience member” stood up to complain that the subject matter was irrelevant to him, but the performance never jelled.

That’s when they brought in Alison Carey, one of the co-founders of Cornerstone Theater who is now on staff at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Korf said, “She told us, ‘I think we’re doing the wrong play. Everybody here is really happy to be here. We should just be doing a comedy and not setting up this false complaint.’ So we switched to A Midsummer Night’s Dream and she wrote the adaptation very quickly.”

A U-Dubber Night’s Dream will actually start in the lobby of the Jones Playhouse, which will stand in for the office of Thesia, who’s been transformed from royalty in Shakespeare’s version to a dean in the present one. There, Aegeus, now an important donor called Tacoma, comes to complain about his young scholar daughter Hermia’s interest in the wrong man. The second scene, in which Shakespeare’s country bumpkins (now a drama class) assemble to put on a play, will be in a parking space across the street. Microphones will allow the audience to hear the dialogue. Then it’s into the theater, which — instead of “a wood near Athens” — has become Foster Island.

That’s where the magic plays out — only in this version the fairies Oberon and Titania have become post-docs studying the science of love, and it’s a chemical that makes the characters fall in love rather than a magic spell. However, science veers into science fiction when Oberon causes one character — a football player who’s part of the drama class — to acquire the head of a dog — or should we say dawg.

Students involved in the production are positive about it. Helen Enguerra, for example, is a first-generation student who heard about auditions at the Ethnic Cultural Center, and is playing a lab tech working for Titania. “It’s a really diverse cast,” Enguerra said. “I’ve never really been in a theater community before, and I’m impressed with how fun and hard working they are.”

Burce, who now works for Seattle Shakespeare Company’s Education Department, was hired for 15 months after graduation as a coordinator for the project, and spent a lot of time maintaining contacts with the various groups being portrayed.

“I have learned a ton about how these projects come together, and the speed bumps along the way,” she said. “But more than that, I think I have learned a lot about understanding … different communities of people. That’s the major thing about this type of work that I love — you have to really open yourself up to listen to and learn from people in a way that we do not usually do in life. That kind of deep listening, listening where you allow the speaker to change your whole way of thinking, is what makes this work so powerful.”

Vice Provost Taylor first got involved when his department was asked for a financial contribution. He agreed. (The production was also supported by Student Life, the College of Arts & Sciences and the Office Minority Affairs and Diversity.) Taylor attended story circles and early rehearsals, and was fascinated with what he saw, so he said yes when asked to play a role. His character is an important donor who threatens to withdraw his support if the dean doesn’t persuade his daughter to marry the man he’s chosen for her.

“I’ve never been in a play before, so it’s been a real learning experience,” Taylor said. He laughed and said on the one hand he regretted saying yes because he’s a “terrible actor,” but on the other he didn’t regret it because “it’s been great to sit on the floor and watch all the teaching and learning taking place.”

Korf is in some ways a novice too. Most of his past experience is as a lighting designer, and he wasn’t originally slated to direct this production. “With every step we took into this, I felt more and more anxious about the risk,” he said. “I wondered, will people come aboard, will people like it, will it be successful? I’m over that now because the experience has been so overwhelmingly positive. It’s been very affirming. I would love to do it again.”

Performances of A U-Dubber Night’s Dream are at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday and 2 p.m. on Sunday through June 6. Tickets are available at the Arts Ticket Office, 206-543-4880 or online here.